Talk shows, magazines and newspapers often present heartwarming stories of celebrities who have triumphed over their addiction. But, uplifting as these stories may be, the real victims of the addiction drama are often forgotten. After all, for every addict there is usually someone who loves them and is heartbroken to see them struggle and suffer. And it should never be forgotten that, full of pain and indignity as the addict’s life may be, they at least have the pleasure of indulging their addiction. For their mother, sister, or partner, however, there is nothing but sadness and pain.
Individuals become addicted to different things and for different reasons. Indeed, there is no such thing as a typical addict. Even the reasons for the addiction can vary, as can other people’s attitudes towards them. In general, they are considered either victims in need of help, or selfish, irresponsible pleasure seekers deserving all they suffer. The only sensible thing to do is to treat each individual as you find them. It would demand a cold heart to condemn an 18-year-old heroin addict desperate to escape her memories of sexual abuse. At the other end of the spectrum, however, there is the middle-aged father too arrogant and lazy to work, who chases easy money in the casino and blows the family’s savings. Addiction can take many forms. People can even become addicted to one another. Many parents have to watch in furious disbelief as their daughter returns to a man who beats her, or their son forgives his wife’s latest affair.
Addiction is a process. The alcoholic may begin with beer, develop a tolerance, progress to vodka, build a further tolerance, and, eventually, find he cannot face the day unless drunk. Often, addicts begin this process by trying to escape something: loneliness, depression, bad memories, or simply boredom. In other cases, the addict takes so much pleasure in drugs or sex (or whatever his weakness may be) that he wants to keep the buzz or high going forever. But, whether addicted to a substance, a person, or a pattern of behavior, addicts crave it when it is denied to them – and suffer. Finally, though an addict may choose to gamble, drink, or take drugs, he does not choose to become addicted. No matter how much pleasure his addiction may bring him, addiction in itself is rarely pleasurable.
Being a Helper Rather Than an Enabler
Someone you love is in distress and you wish to help them – that is both natural and understandable. But there is a difference between helping someone to get better and enabling them to continue their destructive behavior. Never underestimate how devious and manipulative addicts can be. And never forget that for those in the full grip of addiction, feeding their habit is their priority. It is in their interests to convince you that you are helping them when in fact you are merely supporting their habit. Sadly, loved ones often collude in a sort of fantasy. For example, an unemployed alcoholic may ask to borrow fifty dollars so that he can buy a new suit for a job interview. His mother is so pleased to hear this that she agrees. There is no interview of course and the money soon vanishes into the cash register of the nearest bar. But, though his mother suspects this will happen, she so wishes he would transform his life that she chooses to believe he is telling the truth. Understandable as this may be, her money is not helping him; on the contrary, she is enabling him to continue drinking.
Of course, there are no simple rules you can follow; acts that help one addict could harm a second. Trust your instincts. The important thing is to be aware that not all help is actually helpful. Friends and family often come to the ‘rescue’, providing food, shelter, lifts, and a shoulder to cry on. In some cases this may be a life saver, in others it is the last thing the addict needs. No one benefits from the message “you are a victim in need of rescuing.” Other addicts will interpret such kindness to mean “carry on as you like, it’s no big deal – we’ll be here to pick you up each time you fall.” Again, it must be emphasized that the boundary between helper and enabler is often difficult to locate. Some recommend tough love: withdrawing all help and forcing the addict to take responsibility. For certain people this may work wonders, but others will feel abandoned and unloved and turn to their addiction for comfort.
The realities of addiction can be unbearable and, as the poet T. S. Eliot famously put it, “mankind cannot bear very much reality.” Be wary of escaping into fantasy. For the British psychotherapist Robyn Skinner, the ability to face unpleasant truths and see reality clearly is the hallmark of good mental health. Those who love addicts often allow wishful thinking to cloud their judgement. But, as any ex-addict will tell you, addicts can be sneaky and deceitful. Their priority is not you but satisfying their craving for alcohol, cocaine, gambling, or whatever it may be. The simple fact is that neither the addict nor his addiction is under your control. This can be very hard for people to accept – especially when the addict is their child. All parents yearn to believe that they can protect their children from the horrors of the world; they can’t, but they need to believe it all the same. But retreating into fantasy isn’t healthy, neither for you nor anyone else. If your son is still taking heroin but pretending that he isn’t, do not join him in this fantasy. Make it clear that you still love him but that he has to find it in himself to stop – no one can do it for him.
Refusing to Be Manipulated
It is often said that an addict will only stop when he wants to stop. In other words, change will only come when the addict wills it. Sometimes, they have to hit rock bottom before they are ready to make that decision. For many addicts, the reality of their situation strikes them suddenly, like a blinding flash of light. For example, an alcoholic may hear his child crying in her bedroom because he forgot to take her to see a firework display, or a gambler may overhear his wife tell her friend that his addiction has driven her to the brink of suicide.
To help an addict reach this point, you must refuse to be manipulated. Addicts hate the word “no” above all others. Remember, they fear being deprived of their addiction – or rather, of having to face life without it. Most do not want to recognize how selfish, weak and pathetic they have become. To avoid confronting reality and losing their source of pleasure and escape, they will try just about anything, from blaming friends to guilt-tripping their family. Some will fake illness for sympathy, others will pretend to be angry or offended. Unfortunately, the more you allow yourself to be manipulated, the more the addict will manipulate you, so stand your ground and refuse to allow this to happen. Simply be loving but firm. It must be added that, just as you should not allow the addict to manipulate you, you must not manipulate the addict. Never try to humiliate or shame an addict. It may work of course, but it may also drive him further into addiction – what better way to escape shame than in the oblivion of drunkenness or a drug-induced stupor? Loved ones, especially mothers, often play the martyr which, again, can drive the addict away.
If you love someone who is struggling with addiction, reach out for help. Never suffer in silence. Many people do so because they are ashamed. But, so long as you are honest, you may be surprised at how sympathetic and understanding people can be. And do not forget that reaching out will not only benefit you; in the long run it will help the addict. After all, the stronger and happier you feel, the more help you will be able to offer.